Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent Illinois disciplinary Review Board report which recommended a 5 month suspension for a lawyer who was found to have failed to correct his client’s false affidavit claiming sole heirship in an estate matter and made false statements to the court. The opinion is In re: John F. Argoudelis, No. 6200842, Commission No. 2012PR00160 (October 2, 2014) and is online here: http://www.iardc.org/HB_RB_Disp_Html.asp?id=11497
According to the opinion, the lawyer agreed to represent a client regarding the administration of the client’s brother’s estate after the brother died in 2008. The client was angry that a great-niece who had cared for the brother during his lifetime was named as a joint tenant on one of the brother’s bank accounts and received about $400,000.00. The client told the lawyer that he was his brother’s only heir and, based on the information he received from the client, the lawyer drafted and filed an “affidavit of heirship” and letters of administration stating that the client was the only surviving heir. The probate court then appointed the client as administrator of the estate. In early 2009, the lawyer learned that the client had lied to him and that the brother had additional heirs; however, he took no steps over the next seventeen months to correct the false affidavit or file an amended affidavit.
At a hearing before the Illinois Hearing Board, the lawyer stated he failed to amend the affidavit because he forgot about it and he said that he also forgot about the existence of other heirs. He further testified that he was more focused on the issue as to whether the client could obtain the money received by the great-niece.
The Hearing Board found that the lawyer’s testimony was not credible since the lawyer had discussed the existence of additional heirs with various individuals; had conducted research regarding distribution law; and had formulated a potential argument to limit the share of the other heirs. The Hearing Board found that the lawyer knowingly failed to correct the false statement in the affidavit and the lawyer did not challenge that finding.
After the client’s appointment as administrator of the estate, the lawyer also used the false information regarding the heirship to obtain information from financial institutions in an attempt to support the client’s claims against the great-niece. The lawyer also sold the brother’s home in 2009 without notifying the other heirs. The lawyer’s mother-in-law was the listing real estate agent and the lawyer was the title agent in that sale. The lawyer received over $9,000.00 in attorney’s fees from the sale, most of which was for fees that the client owed him to pursue the claim against the great-niece.
In aggravation, the Hearing Board found that the lawyer’s conduct caused harm and “jeopardized the interests of the other heirs. His actions prevented the heirs from taking any action with respect to the sale of (the brother’s) house. He took $9,000 in fees from the sales proceeds that arguably should not have been an expense borne by the other heirs. His conduct also harmed his own client who was sanctioned for engaging in deceit.”
“As noted by the Hearing Board, it is unlikely that (the client) would have been sanctioned and ordered to pay $9,000 had (the lawyer) acted appropriately and amended the affidavit of heirship as soon as he learned it was false. Finally, we agree with the Hearing Board that the judicial system was harmed due to (the lawyer’s) conduct. (The lawyer’s) conduct forced the other heirs to take action in court, at additional expense to the heirs and inconvenience to the court, in order to correct (the lawyer’s) wrongdoings.”
“(The lawyer’s) misconduct was serious. When he learned his client had lied to him and that he had included those lies in material statements he made to the court, (the lawyer) had an obligation to stand up to his client and to persuade his client to remedy the false statements. (The lawyer) did not do so, and his repeated failure to do so over such an extended period of time warrants a sanction greater then a censure or a very brief suspension.”
“While no two disciplinary cases are exactly alike, we view this case as more comparable to In re Vitell, 00 CH 95 (Review Bd., Dec. 31, 2003), petition for leave to file exceptions denied, No. M.R. 19303 (May 17, 2004), where the Court imposed a five month suspension upon an attorney who negotiated approximately eighty-eight disability checks after the death of a client so the client’s widow could continue to receive the disability payments. It is a case where a lawyer aids a client without taking into account his professional obligations to act with integrity. Accordingly, we conclude that a five month suspension adequately addresses the seriousness of (the lawyer’s) misconduct, complies with the purposes of discipline, and is consistent with other sanctions.” The Disciplinary Review Board’s findings will now be reviewed by the Illinois Supreme Court.
Bottom line: In addition to failing to correct the materially false affidavit that had been filed with the court, this lawyer was found to have made materially false statements to the court, which harmed the client and were prejudicial to the administration of justice. These allegations would appear to be serious enough to warrant more than a 5 month suspension; however, regardless of the outcome, this case clearly illustrate a lawyer’s serious responsibility to correct false statements and documents which have been submitted to the court as soon as practicable after learning of their falsity.
Let’s be careful out there.
Disclaimer: this e-mail does not contain any legal advice and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.
Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire
Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.
2454 McMullen Booth Road, Suite 431
Clearwater, Florida 33759
Office (727) 799-1688
Fax (727) 799-1670